Sometimes you see a movie and you can’t help but wonder what it must be like to watch it as one of its stars. You imagine one sitting right up front at a red-carpeted Hollywood premiere, gazing up at the latest studio mishap from the crypt-like darkness of a vast auditorium, hopefully with a sense of humor, more likely with a grimace. For the entire runtime of Justice League, I kept thinking of Jeremy Irons, who resumes his role from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as Bruce Wayne’s surly but supportive butler Alfred Pennyworth. No one—not even Irons—is too good to star in a dumb Hollywood spectacle. But god, does Justice League push it. It’s a movie in which two near-gods plus a megarich defense contractor, a high-tech Franken-hero who’s part machine, and a jittery 20-something who’s as fast as lightning all join together, sort of against their will, to save the world from an overdose of CGI. In that regard, they lose. In terms of making a fun or sensible movie, they also lose. SUPERMAN IS DEAD, read the newspaper headlines we see early in the movie. It’s funny to think that someone like Irons, seeing the movie at its premiere, might read those headlines and think, “Same.”
The premise of Justice League is that the world is going to end unless Batman, Wonder Woman, and a handful of new recruits—Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher)—band together to save it. Their immediate threat is a big blue guy named Steppenwolf, who’s on the hunt for a trio of extremely dangerous blocks of energy called Mother Boxes which, when combined, could launch a world apocalypse. That’s pretty bad, but there’s also the plain fact that the world is already in a funk. Batman v Superman ended with the latter dead and buried; the new movie starts in the aftermath, when skyscrapers are adorned with long black flags hanging in Superman’s honor. As that last film showed us, Superman was more than a man in a cape: He was a symbol of peace and justice. After he dies, crime breaks out in the streets, apparently, and anarchy reigns. Granted, the most violence we see to that effect is a crook terrorizing a local fruit stand (i.e., kicking over a few boxes of oranges)—but we trust that this stands in for a broader sense of unrest. “It’s because he’s dead, right?” one Gothamite says. “Where does that leave us?” (The answer: with a bad movie.)
Justice League runs about two hours long and is full of fire and bombast and rocket-grade armor. There’s a whole “End of Days” theme to think about, multiple plotlines to juggle, and a handful of backstories to tease out. But I never watched it more intently than when I was trying to figure out what the fuck was going on with Henry Cavill’s upper lip. (I eventually remembered.) Warner Bros. has been almost comically insistent on making us think Justice League is a rock-star ensemble movie packed with exciting action set pieces and even a few jokes (like Batman responding to “What are your superpowers, again?” with, “I’m rich”) rather than the misshapen, graceless franchise fuckfest that it is. But I guess that would be hard to advertise, really.
The movie feels as stapled-together as Frankenstein’s skin flaps. That’s in part because of what it’s about, but also because of how the movie was made. With Mother Boxes as far apart as Atlantis and Themyscira, the movie feels like a tour of every possible nook of the DC universe. We dip underwater for a tour of Atlantis; we fly sky-high with the flaming arrows of the Amazons. It should make the movie feel glorious and vast; instead, it all feels vague and calculated. After Zack Snyder, the movie’s only credited director, had to step away in the wake of personal tragedy, the movie was taken over by Joss Whedon, who is reported to have reshot much of the connective tissue between the action set pieces, livening up the movie with more of a sense of humor. (Whedon is credited for “additional scenes.”) Whedon’s style is decidedly lighter on its feet than Snyder’s, or at the very least it’s trying hard to be. Problem is, if you’ve seen the trailers and the preview clips, you’ve already seen the best jokes. Rather, you’ve seen all the jokes—which means you’ve also noticed that most of this cast isn’t exactly known for its sense of humor.
The glaring exception is Ezra Miller, whose Barry Allen (a.k.a. the Flash) is a bundle of boyish excitement and giggle-worthy faux pas. His performance is not enough to unsink the movie; if anything, it only makes it come off as a little more confused. Snyder, whose Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are both hit-or-miss endeavors (but more hit than we’ve tended to give them credit for), has the kind of style you can feel DC Comics wanting to get away from. It’s lurid, dense, overwrought—and at its best, as when we see Superman in flight in Man of Steel, it’s grandly mythic. Whedon, on the other hand, is by now a pro at the factory-made but still distinctive-enough franchise movie—and voila. We get Snyderesque doses of stylized violence mixed in with Whedonesque stabs at emotional resonance, like Amy Adams waking up at night to pat her dead superhero boyfriend’s empty pillow. In that regard, Justice League is a little like Suicide Squad, which was memorably overhauled to become more of a cheesy feelings-fest in the wake of Batman v Superman’s poor reception. The biggest battle isn’t the one we see onscreen; it’s the one happening offstage, in the conflict between these competing visions. There’s what the studio wants, there’s what the director wants, and there’s what we, the audience, are presumed to want. By that measure, Justice League is an accomplishment of sorts: It fails across the board—assuming the studio wants to make a satisfying movie and not just make bank.
One positive about Justice League is that it gives underworked actors I really like, such as Diane Lane, a way to pay their bills—though, granted, in shitty, small roles. The other high point is that I at least now understand that part in Batman v Superman where Batman has a dream—or was it a premonition?—that he’s fighting a bunch of alien bug-dudes. But even that sequence in Batman v Superman, with its hallucinatory weirdness, stands out more than anything here. It’s a pleasure to see Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman again, and to see newer franchise faces like Jason Momoa bring their characters to life with an abundance of attitude. Ben Affleck is still the sourpuss, guilt-ridden Batman he was before, and the last act is still the highway to hell Snyder’s movies are known for. But that’s about it. Justice League is another attempt to course-correct what some believe were Snyder’s botched early entries in the DC universe—a claim I would dispute, somewhat. The movie wants to be grand, it wants to be fun, but in the end, it’s just another loud, lifeless, high-tech bore.