Superman is dead. He was killed by a monster (not Batman) at the end of “Batman v Superman” and is still dead when “Justice League” picks up the story some time later. The titular coalition of superheroes doesn’t exist yet, but Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) — not generally a team player — is trying to assemble one to protect Earth against an invasion of humanoid flying insect aliens that portend a graver threat, and so forth. You know, the usual world-saving business.
That’s as good a reason as any to assemble the Superfriends, but “Justice League” is a rocky start to what Warner Bros. hopes will be an “Avengers”-sized franchise. It doesn’t help that one of the founding members of the group is dead and that the audience knows he won’t be dead forever (Henry Cavill’s name is second in the opening credits) and is just waiting for the movie to get on with it. Superman’s absence hangs over the story like a fog, making Batman grumpier than usual, making Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) sad, making the world fall apart without a protector.
It’s a dismal set of circumstances, and there’s plenty of director Zack Snyder’s trademark moroseness and brooding (and slow-motion action and spandex-enhanced butts) to be had. But there’s lightness, too, thanks to Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), aka Wonder Woman (though nobody calls her that), who was eager to accept Batman’s call to action and serves as a humanist counterpart to his growling pessimism. Even more enthusiastic is Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), aka the Flash (though nobody calls him that), a super-fast kid whose wide-eyed, golly-gee excitement is tempered by the fact that he’s never been in battle and is terrified. He’s little more than comic relief, but that relief is much needed.
“Man of Steel” (2013) B-
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) C-
“Suicide Squad” (2016) D
“Wonder Woman” (2017) B+
“Justice League” (2017) C+
Because you know who else is onboard? Two more gloomypusses. One is Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), aka Aquaman, an Atlantis-dweller who fights underwater crime (I guess?) and helps his friends in Scandinavian villages by bringing them fish (i.e., his other friends) to eat. Part frat boy, part death-metal dude, Aquabro is an above-it-all loner who joins up only after the forces of evil threaten Atlantis. His powers include being very strong and sort of being able to control water, which comes in handy once. Bruce Wayne asks him if he talks to fish, and he scowls and says something like, “The water talks to them,” which sounds like deflection. Aquaman talks to fish but is too cool to admit it.
The final member of the group is Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), aka Cyborg (though nobody calls him that), a young man whose scientist father (Joe Morton) experimented on him with Kryptonian technology that mutated him into a cybernetic hybrid with powers that Victor himself does not understand and cannot control. Victor is unhappy about this.
As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts here, so many that there’s no room for an interesting villain. Instead we get Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), a CGI demon who’s seeking three powerful McGuffins called Mother Boxes that can do a variety of things ranging from turning Earth into a ruined hellscape to resurrecting Superman. (Pretty wide skillset on those Mother Boxes.) Steppenwolf is eminently forgettable, a common disappointment in the sub-genre of superhero movies.
The heroes are far more engaging, especially the ones we know anything about. Rather than tell us everyone’s backstories, the movie is content to tell us that there ARE backstories and ask us to wait for the standalone Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg movies to elaborate. I can do without Aquadude and Cybore for now, but the groundwork is laid for them both to be compelling characters later on. The Flash already is, thanks to Ezra Miller’s exuberant energy, and though Wonder Woman doesn’t build much on the work she did in her own film (this one is too busy for individual heroics), her presence is welcome. Ben Affleck is still a good choice for an older, bruised, more jaded Batman, but there’s not a lot of Bat-action here. I like this exchange, though:
WONDER WOMAN: You know you can’t do this forever.
BATMAN: I can barely do it now.
Considering the behind-the-scenes difficulties — Snyder left the film due to tragic personal reasons, leaving it to be completed (and partly rewritten and reshot) by Joss Whedon — it’s impressive that “Justice League” isn’t messier than it is. Keeping it under two hours probably helped (better to rush than meander), but it would have been better if they’d restructured the story to have Superman return in the first half, not the second. The team needs its leader, and the DC Extended Universe needs its idealistic Boy Scout.
C+ (2 hrs.; )