Movie review: Justice League

After the critical drubbing of Batman v Superman, which featured too-dark, bastardized versions of DC Comics’ most iconic heroes, the easiest thing for Warner Bros. to do with Justice League would have been to hit the reset button. Keep the same actors, but just show up with versions of the characters more palatable to superhero-starved audiences, continuity be damned.

It’s to Warner Bros. credit that they apparently believe in fixing — and not overwriting — their shaky shared universe. They don’t just take the easy way out. Not totally anyway. Yes, Batman is suddenly a lot less murderous in Justice League than he was in BvS. But he’s also dealing with the mistakes he made in that movie. The fact that he tried to kill Superman last time out isn’t just swept under the rug; he’s forced to face the bad decisions he’s made and make atonement for them while the world faces a new and deadly threat. There’s even a callback to that garbage “Do you bleed?” line from BvS, and, somehow, it actually works!

It’s a weird and delicate balancing act — course-correcting from a terrible movie while at the same time serving as a natural extension from it. And, surprisingly, Justice League at least marginally pulls it off. So who do we thank for this progress? Zack Snyder, the film’s credited director who we know left the production midway because of a family tragedy? Or Joss Whedon, the gifted assembler of The Avengers, who was brought in to finish Justice League (and reportedly reworked up to 20 percent of it)? My gut says Whedon’s contributions were key, but honestly we’ll probably never know exactly how much of Snyder’s original vision made it into the final cut. Let’s just say the mix proves somewhat fruitful and dive into what’s on screen without further addressing authorship, which may be futile anyway.

Justice League finds Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, still dutifully carrying on as Batman) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, still radiant and bad-ass as Wonder Woman) preparing for an imminent invasion. The Parademons Bruce glimpsed in BvS are real and herald the arrival of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a gigantic, horn-helmeted being who was banished from Earth ages ago, when it took the combined might of Humankind, the Amazons and the Atlanteans to get rid of him. Now he’s back and searching for three Mother Boxes (these bulky, magical cubes) that will give him ultimate power and the ability to reshape Earth into a hellish nightmare land.

Knowing they need help to fight this threat, Bruce and Diana set out to recruit three other super-powered beings to their cause: Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Game of Thrones‘ Jason Momoa), an Atlantean who seems to be on the outs with his own people and spends his days saving drowning fishermen and pounding whiskey; Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), a kid who can move with super-speed but isn’t quite feeling the hero’s calling; and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a half-man/half-machine hybrid whose constant upgrades threaten to overtake his humanity. All five of them together maybe stand a chance at defeating Steppenwolf and his army of weird, flying bug guys. But what they could really use is a big, blue Boy Scout on their side. Hmm, if only there were a way to bring Henry Cavill’s Superman back from the dead. (Did I mention that Cavill is second billed and that the Mother Boxes seem to work as the DCEU’s ultimate deus ex machina?)

That’s basically the plot of the movie. It’s simple. It’s mostly dumb. But it also allows these characters to move into specific roles and develop a group dynamic that will be warmly received by anyone who’s ever been a fan of the DC comics and cartoons over the years. My favorite part of the movie is likely the relationship between Bruce and Diana, which gets emotionally combative at times but never loses sight that these are two powerful people who respect and need each other. Aquaman is the best of the newbies — gruff and sardonic. (He also gets the film’s biggest laugh with an assist from a certain lasso.) I’m not sure if Momoa can carry a whole solo movie, but he’s great here. The Flash gets too jokey at times, but I dug his whole “learning to be a hero” arc. Cyborg makes the least impact. At least the CGI used to bring his robot parts to life is pretty solid, even if his design is kind of lame.

Even lamer: Steppenwolf, a digital creation that feels like he stepped in from some half-finished videogame cut-scene. How bad is he? He’s worse than the final-form version of Ares from Wonder Woman. Like way worse. DC fans, don’t you dare be sticking up for this guy while coming at me with that “Marvel sucks at villains” bullshit. Steppenwolf is awful and his most heinous act is trapping fun, charismatic versions of the DC superheroes in what still feels a lot of the time like a bad movie. There’s also some jankiness when it comes to the long-term plotting of the DC Extended Universe. Diana’s arc from the end of Wonder Woman to where she is in BvS to what she’s doing here doesn’t fully track. But, again, Justice League at least tries to smooth those edges — positioning her as someone who’s been a hero since the moment she left that island but is just now learning to be a leader and a role model to humanity.

At the end of the day, all of this refining and course-correcting doesn’t add up to a great film by any means, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction from Batman v Superman. You’d think a shared-universe franchise would be hitting heights greater than “it’s sorta good-ish!” with its first major team-up (especially on the heels of the excellent but largely stand-alone Wonder Woman), but this is what happens when you dig yourself such a big hole to begin with. Credit to Snyder and Whedon and everyone else involved for turning their eyes skyward and beginning the slow crawl out.