When Batman v. Superman came out in 2016 I saw a movie that was, in short, not good. But it’s not good in ways that feel unique to it. It was bad because director Zack Snyder took a risk by doing something bold and sadly fell short. I would even go as far as to describe it as “uniquely bad.” But what’s disappointing about Justice League is that it’s bad in ways we’ve so many movies be bad. Nasty CGI, thin character development and a villain that’s less intimidating than casual street mime are all big enough problems to almost make the sheer blockbuster thrills and superhero spectacle seem worthless. Almost.
The movie takes place in a post BVS world, where it’s alluded to that the world has devolved into sin and crime. We see this showcased in the occasional homeless person and alt-righters kicking over oranges. Such malice and chaos lead to the arrival giant humanoid mosquitos called Parademons, characters who Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) has been able to track but who go completely unnoticed by the public, despite being only slightly smaller than Andre the Giant.
When destroyed, these creatures leave behind clues relating to the existence of three magic cubes called Mother Boxes, which individually do something, I’m sure, but only matter when combined so that they can destroy/rebuild the world. This means bad things are coming, which means Bats and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) have to assemble the League. This includes Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) and The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller). I would describe their powers, but something about their names seems to describe them well enough.
The assembly of these characters is far too rushed. In The Avengers from Marvel, each of the characters had time in their solo movies to develop, so when brought together for their team up their personalities were able to clash. None of that happens here. We are rushed through surface-level explanations of who they are and what they can do, adding up to the equivalent of a supermarket taste test of a better meal waiting for us down the road.
That’s not to say the actors don’t make the best of their roles. We’ve seen Affleck’s Batman and Gadot’s Wonder Woman in the past, and there’s little here that’s new to see. Batman is more positive and capable of cracking a joke, and Diana is more willing to accept her role as a leader and hero. It’s Miller who steals the show as the neurotic Flash, who, unlike the other heroes, has no idea how to fight or be heroic. He wrings out tons of laughs that make for a more entertaining flick and gives the movie a much-needed bit of quirkiness. Cyborg shows traces of a more interesting character study, as he deals with a Frankenstein complex, trying to look past a monster in the mirror. Then there’s Aquaman, who Momoa plays as a biker/surfer dude with attitude, and sells it best when he’s leaping into action and shouting war cries.
That is about as deep as the characters go, and sadly they all seem to get off mostly on the right foot. The villain is attacking, they all know the threat, and they’re ready to do battle. Aside from one or two disagreements, there’s little that makes watching them as a team interesting. Sure, as a comic book fan there’s the pure excitement of seeing them all together in one room, but there’s little about it that goes beyond pure fanboy giddiness. What future movies need is more drama going on between such massive egos, which I’m confident will be easier to do after characters like Aquaman and Flash get their solo outings.
Maybe there would be a greater conflict if the villain at the center of the chaos wasn’t the entirely CGI Steppenwolf (played by Ciaran Hinds using motion capture). The character looks unbelievably bad when standing next to the likes of Aquaman and Diana, and I assume he was designed to look like if a Billy goat became human and formed his own satanic cult. The design could be forgiven if he was more than a simple smash-and-grab villain who does nothing more than bash stuff up, take away magic boxes and talk about the weakness of men. He teleports down to earth wherever and whenever he pleases, but we have no idea where he’s coming from or where he’s going. Is he going off to an interdimensional lair? Does he have a secret base on the moon? We see him set up shop halfway through the movie in some remote, desolate nuclear town, but that doesn’t answer how he’s been spending his time pre-nuclear silo. There are worse superhero villains out there, but the fact he looks so expensive makes it feel vastly more disappointing and wasteful.
Even the explanation behind his arrival is maddening. What I took from it is that since the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) the world is in chaos, which leaves the spirits of men weak, giving Steppenwolf power to arrive. Why could he not do this during the thousands of years Superman was not on Earth and humans were being dicks? Where was he before this? Why is it so easy for him to use a wormhole to teleport to the locations of the powerful mother boxes? These are too many questions to ask when watching something that should be a super fun action movie. Now my brain hurts.
Still, for all the brain hurting there’s plenty of eye candy, all thanks to the action scenes involving the team. Sure, the backgrounds look like drab, green screen garbage, but seeing the team assemble was too much for the kid in me to ignore. Flash gets to zoom around; Cyborg turns his arms into guns and blasts fools; Diana is a warrior goddess and; Batman gets thrown around because karate only works so well against alien soldiers. Even when things get too clunky and bogged down by ugly CGI the action is as thrilling as it should be for a movie like this. The scenes work better when given room to breathe, like when Aquaman fights some insects in mid-air, only to ride one back down into the ground. The citizens of this small town where the climax takes place aren’t saved until after a ton of stuff is blown up, and we’re only shown the same, small family, despite there being a whole community of people. But, hey, at least the heroes don’t completely forget about them.
Justice League is both suffers and benefits from the intent behind it. The goal to simply introduce the team and show them in action makes for a breezy film that’s not entirely difficult to watch, with solid performances from the team and action scenes ripped right out of the comics. The fanboy in me loved seeing in the gang together, even if it was in no way emotionally stimulating. On the other side, you could drive the Batmobile through the plot holes in this movie, and the characters needed more time to develop. The drama needed to make this more than sufficient popcorn entertainment is not there in the slightest, even though the characters are interesting enough. Granted, I say this to myself while smiling inside when picturing Batman blasting space bugs away in the Batmobile.