REVIEW: Superman Mesmerizes, But Uneven Justice League Stumbles

Man of Steel. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Suicide Squad. Wonder Woman. It’s been a long road to Justice League, but has it been long enough? Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment have slammed together a superhero ensemble intended to be epic, but with a trio of new characters, a bevy of backstories, and the requisite sprawling action sequences, this much-anticipated film is a very wonky ride.

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Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead. And without him, Batman (Ben Affleck) fears mankind needs a hero greater than himself to fight for them. So he brings together the Amazon warrior of legend Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), a fast-talking and even faster footed Flash (Ezra Miller), the burly and underwater-breathing Atlantis native Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and the brooding result of boy meets alien robo-tech Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Together, they must rise up against the new threat to the planet Earth: Steppenwolf, who is basically a CGI baddie with a growling voice courtesy of Ciarán Hinds.

The film’s overarching plot is a haphazard excuse to deliver plenty of over the top action and big showy hero moments. And to its credit, Justice League delivers both. It even works up a tangential sequence so the freshly revered Wonder Woman can thrills fans with her beatific battle mode as she foils the terrorist plot of some sneering radicals. It has absolutely nothing to do with the main story, but who cares when we get to relish once more in Diana blocking bullets with her gauntlets, squeezing truth out of snarling men with her magical lasso, and generally being a beacon of hope and heroism? Gadot is once more a vision of power, beauty and grace. Sadly, after this early moment in the spotlight, she’s mostly sidelined to alternately nag or flirt with Batman. Sigh.

Affleck cuts a dashing figure and plays Bruce Wayne with a rakish bravado, and Batman with a glowering intensity. But when he’s called on to land a punch line, his jokes all fall with a cringing clatter like so many lost batarangs. Admittedly, I’m bored by Affleck’s Batman, who seems 85% clenched chin, 10% grumbling, and 5% smirking, but the rest of the ensemble manages to bring some life to director Zack Snyder’s signature grimness.

Though he gets woefully little screen time, Momoa (best known as Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones) brings some badass allure, striding into a roaring surf while shirtless, his tattoos and bold pecs blazing, tossing his long wild locks back and swigging from a bottle of booze, all while Jack White’s “Icky Thump” rages as an anthem. He’s an exciting new take on the character that feels feral and fun. Later, he even gets a moment of levity, courtesy of a jarringly revealing monologue, a humorous conclusion feels very much like a touch from Joss Whedon, who revamped Chris Terrio’s script and helmed reshoots for Snyder.

Newcomer Ray Fisher has a tough job here, forced to carve out a personality and arc for Cyborg from a few short scenes that too often have his character sulking in a hoodie and sweatpants. Crammed in is a hasty backstory about an accident, his life forever changed when his scientist father decked out his dying body with cyber enhancements. It feels the stuff of a dark and potentially compelling solo movie/origin story. Yet here, it’s in a jumble with the Big Bad’s tale, the rounding up the team shtick, and a barrage of other short stories of mourning moms (Diane Lane), imprisoned dads (Billy Crudup) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) getting her groove back. Fisher strives to brew pathos, but his brief screen time fights his efforts. It’s not until the final act that the more lively Cyborg fans might know from Teen Titans or Teen Titans Go is anywhere evident. Here’s hoping Flashpoint, the next DC property in which Fisher is slated to appear, gives him more to do than pout.

Perhaps fittingly, Ezra Miller runs away with this movie. Unlike his fellows, he is not burdened by or resenting of his powers, but in prideful awe of them. He hasn’t figured out how to be a hero yet, but when Batman comes to his secret lair — where K-Pop music blasts and stolen tech lies around in piles — this fanboy geeks out hard! And who could blame him!? In Barry, we get to see the joy of discovering your superhero self, and a variety of close-ups and reaction cutaways allow him to play the audience surrogate, whether he’s grinning ear-to-ear over a sweet team-up move, or warning Batman who bickers with Wonder Woman, “You know if she kills, we’ll cover for her.” Miller is an utter scamp who brings a welcomed mirth to the mire of the DC franchise’s grittiness. And while Affleck can’t land a joke to save his life, Miller proves an MVP, scoring giggles and cheers throughout.

Very slight spoilers in the next paragraph.

Lastly, we’ll talk Cavill, who doesn’t get a lot of screen time in this overstuffed superhero adventure, but does at long last give us a Superman who is mesmerizing and exciting. It’s as if someone woke him up or set him loose. There’s an electric charm to his Superman, who battles a small army bare-chested, and allows his rage to simmer dangerously to the surface. He occasionally scowls, cracks jokes and even gets cocky. But always, always with a radiant warmth, shining as bright as the yellow sun that fuels him. And — best yet? — he delivers bigger blows than ever before.

Cyborg and Aquaman in “Justice League”

Ultimately, there’re some good bits in Justice League, but too much of it feels undercooked. The main plot line is standard end of the world stuff, with interchangeable evil minions, and a villain whose motivation is vague beyond the checklist chatter of doom and destiny. The franchise’s Batman is clearly being tweaked, giving him flirtation and jokes, but neither clicks. (Let’s get real, if Wonder Woman wanted a beau, she’d be eying Aquaman!) Gadot is misused, while Momoa and Fisher are underused. Miller and Cavill are refreshing, fun and make me wish this movie were actually another 2 ½ hour superhero pic. Which is all to say, Justice League would have been better served with more time to let everything breathe and develop.

With scenes careening into each other oblivious of momentum, tone or plot structure, it feels like a Frankenstein of a film. Clearly, cuts to some stories were sacrificed for a leaner runtime. Aquaman’s time in Atlantis is startlingly short, while The Flash and Cyborg’s backgrounds are rushed through so they can join the chase for a malevolent McGuffin. ADR lines suggest Batman’s vibe was shifted in post. Scenes with Diana and the Amazons are thrilling, but rather than integrated, they feel like post-Wonder Woman fan service. And so Justice League feels like a disservice to these characters, who needed more time to develop, and to fans, who have been aching for this movie’s arrival.

I know DC fans loathe when these films get compared to Marvel movies, but Warner Bros. should have taken a note from the MCU, allowing a string of solo films to set up and grow the characters so their big epic didn’t feel like it’s constantly playing catch-up.