You know that description of Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry is post-life in the way station between places? “…Raw and rough…it had been left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath.” Voldemort, defeated, provides the most apt description of Justice League, a messy movie which never manages to choose a path, and feels as though it was abandoned as everyone agreed to just write it off as the last vestige of Zack Snyder’s misfiring creative vision for the DC cinematic universe. Or perhaps you could compare it to the Titanic, a colossus too big to nimbly turn into a more welcome, optimistic direction. But though Justice League isn’t really good, it is nowhere near as miserable as Batman v Superman. Justice League is at least watchable.
There are a lot of problems with Justice League, some of which are common to superhero movies in general—crappy CG villain, drone army, sky portals, numbing bombastic third act CG sh*tacular battle—but some of the problems are unique to Justice League and the issues that have plagued the DC movies since Man of Steel, and some of the problems result from the attempt to fix those problems. The most obvious is the complete clash between Zack Snyder’s original vision and Joss Whedon’s fourth-quarter Hail Mary to turn Justice League into something overall lighter and less dour. Unsurprisingly, two such different filmmakers simply do not mix. It is blatantly obvious which parts of the movie come from Whedon and what belongs to Snyder, and the result is a Frankenstein’s monster of clashing tone and style.
Whedon definitely won the tonal stakes, as the movie is stocked with his signature quips and everyone has a zinger in any given situation. But that is completely at odds with Snyder’s directing style, which emphasizes brute force and weapons in a way that belies the light banter of the characters. It’s like watching a twelve-round boxing match set to “Yakety Sax”. And unfortunately, this dissonance doesn’t even lead to anything interesting.
The action in Justice League is bafflingly bland, with only three good sequences in the entire movie. The Amazons get a solid bit showing off their determined brand of teamwork, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) has a now-signature inspiring piece of life-saving action, and the Flash (Ezra Miller) gives us a taste of the visual possibilities of his power, though admittedly Fox’s Quicksilver is still the best speedster on the big screen. But everything else is completely forgettable and even worse, UGLY. Not one piece of Justice League is nice to look at, with hideous lighting, alarmingly bad CGI, and abundant awful design choices. Everything about Batman is clunky, Cyborg is an overworked design nightmare, underwater Atlantis is barely visible, and not only do the Amazons have retrograde costumes, but Wonder Woman’s beautiful Themyscira looks like a cheap video game insert.
BUT. The saving grace of Justice League are the characters. The cast manages to scrape together enough chemistry to carry the movie for (a relatively fleet) two hours. Ben Affleck really is so good as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, it will be a shame when he quits the franchise before doing anything truly worth his time. And Gal Gadot is the brightest spark in the DC franchise, even though Wonder Woman’s arc is wasted on cleaning up that “sat out the twentieth century” detail from Batman v Superman. Gadot herself is fantastic, and it’s a testament to her performance that Wonder Woman remains the best thing about these movies, but character-wise, she’s treading water here and not allowed to do anything interesting as her main narrative function is to be explained at by Bruce Wayne.
As for the newcomers, Miller fares the best as Barry Allen/the Flash, playing Barry as the kid who just wants to impress his mentor. His loose screen presence is a good fit for Whedon’s writing, and he gets the most quips and zingers to toss out, and is sure to be a fan favorite going forward. Jason Momoa is okay as Aquaman—the energy is there, but he never really meshes with the movie or the other superheroes. He might fare better in his own movie, where he gets to be the center of attention, but it also might not bode well that the whole Atlantis sequence is laughably bad. And Ray Fisher as Cyborg doesn’t register at all. That’s one stand-alone movie that will never happen.
And then there’s Superman. In what feels like a holdover from Snyder’s embarrassment of the character, he’s barely in the movie and his return is a total drag and also completely bizarre from a story perspective. It’s actually one of the quirks that makes Justice League sort of interesting to watch. The whole “Superman returns” bit is so confounding and misguided, it’s weirdly compelling in its awfulness. But once he’s back, Henry Cavill is actually allowed to smile and say words like “truth” and “justice”, and this almost feels like the kind of awesome, inspiring Superman for which we’ve been clamoring. Although the digitally erased mustache is a total disaster and gives Cavill a tragic case of computer-face.
Justice League is not as bad as predecessors Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad, but it’s a huge step down from Wonder Woman. It can generously be called a mixed bag, if the mix in that bag is mostly rocks and worms. At least at two hours and with a pace of editing that says, “We just want to get this over with,” it’s not a hard sit. It’s just forgettable, without anything as bizarre as Lex Luthor’s piss jar or triumphant as Wonder Woman crossing No Man’s Land, and it’s obvious no one had a clear vision to replace Snyder’s doom and gloom take. The nicest thing to say about Justice League is that it won’t give you a migraine. And hey, Wonder Woman is cool.