Zack Snyder’s Justice League is both the best and worst of everything we’ve seen from the Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe movies. There are plenty of things to like, and about an equal number to dislike. But ultimately, its good things bumped up against the bad enough to leave me with hope and excitement for what’s to come.
Taking place after the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League is mainly about Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) assembling a team of superheroes to defeat the villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). The team, of course, consists of Barry Allen, played by Ezra Miller; Arthur Curry, played by Jason Momoa; and Victor Stone, played by Ray Fisher. In comics, we know them as the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg.
While Affleck’s Batman, Gadot’s Wonder Woman, and even Henry Cavill’s Superman have been fairly well-defined, Justice League has to spend a lot of time introducing and setting up these new characters, which makes for a very disjointed narrative. Jumping around to continually help establish who the new characters are, what they can do, and how they fit in is understandable, but it never quite feels cohesive. The movie really feels like five movies, smashed frantically together.
However, once the characters are established, they’re relatable and interesting. Barry, for example, is incredibly insecure. Diana is harboring guilt over her long absence from protecting humanity. Victor feels like a confused outsider, and so on. They’re simply-defined characteristics, to be sure, but they give everyone just enough depth that, once things really start happening, they have goals to achieve beyond just beating the bad guy.
The bad guy, unfortunately, is possibly Justice League’s biggest problem. Steppenwolf is so incredibly non-threatening that he feels almost superfluous to the movie. He’s not superfluous, and there are plenty of attempts to make him threatening, but it’s all undercut by how generic he is. If he was Lex Luthor, Darkseid, Doomsday, or any of DC’s other top-tier villains, Justice League would barely need to change anything about his role, because there is nothing distinct about Steppenwolf. The character feels like a placeholder for a better bad guy they forget to insert, and as a result, he never feels like a whole or worthy adversary. There’s not a moment in the film where the Justice League’s victory is ever in doubt.
In fact, everything the Justice League does feels too easy. Some of that is certainly due to the film’s economical runtime, which is under two hours. This should be a good thing—way too many superhero blockbusters are too bloated nowadays—but Justice League clearly cut out some connective tissue instead of just telling a tighter story. Among those are scenes about a random European family that feel hugely out of place for most of the film; when their purpose is finally revealed, the payoff is minimal. Wonder Woman’s first appearance is another such example. She’s fighting terrorists who have this huge political agenda but they simply disappear, leaving you scratching your head. The disjointed storytelling, coupled with a lack of tension, continually works against the film.
The action scenes, on the other hand, have more to them than the previews may have led you to expect. They could have easily just been everyone punching things and flying around, but the heroes are given their defined (if expected) roles. Aquaman helps with water stuff, the Flash with speed, Cyborg with tech, Wonder Woman with strength, and Batman is the coach, making sure everything runs smoothly. When all the team members are fighting side by side, the movie is very fun to watch.
And yet they come with another problem: As those action scenes are happening, the visuals don’t always look that great. Many of the effects in Justice League aren’t just bad, they’re very bad. It’s very obvious which scenes with Superman were reshot, because Cavill’s digital mustache removal isn’t always seamless. Some shots with Cyborg look like he exists on multiple plains of existence. Thankfully, these problems aren’t persistent, but they’re there, and they’ll knock you right out of the movie.
But even when the film around them is sloppy or ineffective, the characters are likable—charming, even. That’s not something that can be said for many DC superhero movies. So despite the fact that there are only some parts of Justice League that truly work, the whole film is a bundle of potential. It creates genuine interest and excitement for a Cyborg movie, an Aquaman movie, and a Flash movie. This film does a lot of heavy lifting, which at times hurts it immensely. But as a result a foundation has been set. We know who these characters are, what they can do, and we actually like them. Now, all DC and Warner Bros. have to do is make those films better.
Justice League opens November 17.
*Correction: We added a qualifier to the line about superhero films being charming.