You can’t blame Justice League for wanting a do-over. The fourth film in Warner Bros. and DC’s cinematic universe inherits an unenviable jumble of targets to hit. It is tasked with not only uniting six marquee heroes into an Avengers-style super-team, but also introducing half those heroes properly for the first time at all. It must resurrect Superman after his bafflingly premature death in last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Its ill-fitting villain, the horned demon Steppenwolf, is another long-coming inevitability, teased through in-movie advertisements in BvS. And its tone—substantially, even manically more jovial than the self-important agonizing of Zack Snyder’s previous DC films—is required course-correction after those films’ lukewarm receptions.
Little wonder then that so much of Justice League feels like a checklist of obligations, a marathon of scratching off little squares before finally wiping the slate clean. By the end, it affords the DCEU a golden opportunity: a chance to slow its roll, lower the stakes and move forward coherently.
Perhaps there was no way for Justice League to purge the mistakes of movies past without sacrificing itself in the process. (Its troubled production likely didn’t help; hands pulling it in 15 different tonal directions are all but visible onscreen.) But it does seem to come from a place of genuine goodwill. It’s surprisingly compassionate and earnest, even cheesy at times in a way that worked for me. It keeps its aims simple and clips along at a nimble enough pace to allow moments of understanding and empathy for each of its heroes. The brooding and posturing that made BvS so oppressive is, for the most part, eradicated. (Even Bats cracks jokes at his own expense. Twice!) It can’t help but keep tripping over its own feet, like a certain scarlet speedster. But it is, all told, a stumble out of the red.
The requisite world-ending, sky-vortex superhero movie clichés are accounted for here through Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), an otherworldly Big Bad whose army of winged parademons feeds on fear. In Justice League’s world, as in ours, there’s a lot to feed on these days. The film starts to gesture at something interesting here, finding resonances between the darkness of our current sociopolitical climate and the hopelessness enveloping Gotham and Metropolis after the death of Superman (Henry Cavill). His absence emboldens new agents of hate and chaos: terrorists and criminals (played by white men) seek a new world order based on fear and ignorance. Steppenwolf not only exploits this void, he is summoned by it. Thicken an atmosphere with enough division and fear, and some vile power-hungry brute demanding you “love” him will appear.
Disappointingly, the movie abandons these ideas in favor of the last thing it needs: magical boxes that grant world-dominating power, in no way distinct from the million you’ve seen superheroes chase before. Steppenwolf’s quest to unite these three Mother Boxes is, however, what pushes Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, more suited than ever to the role of an aging Batman in crisis) to enlist Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in helping him recruit three new meta-humans to the team: Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Barry Allen (The Flash, played by Ezra Miller) and Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa, frequently shirtless). Each deserves more than the ten minutes of backstory they’re given. Barry’s father Henry (Billy Crudup) has been wrongly imprisoned for the murder of his mother; a lightning accident gave him his speed. Victor’s power derives from a Mother Cube, used by his father in a desperate experiment to save his life; his mother died tragically as well. Arthur, meanwhile, has left Atlantis behind for the glamorous life of an ice fisherman. Or a village layabout? His background in particular is so hastily sketched, even Batman’s still confused by movie’s end. “Do you... talk to fish?” he asks hesitantly. No, it turns out, the ocean does the talking. Whatever that means.
But their team rapport, if still a bit creaky, is often pure pleasure to watch. Ditto its softening effect on guilt-ridden loner Bruce, who blames himself for Superman’s death. He establishes a kind of mentorship with the endearingly awkward, hyper-anxious Barry—a dynamic that perhaps reminds him of another young protégé. In the others, especially Diana, he finds much-needed purpose. (Their relationship is familiar from DC’s animated Justice League series, where Bruce often wrestled with a schoolboy crush. The film wisely does not tread beyond that.) It’s a theme that manifests in each individual’s arc, from Wonder Woman, who’s kept herself out of the public eye since Steve Trevor’s death, to Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who’s withdrawn from her work as an investigative reporter. Fighting for something bigger than themselves thaws grief-stricken emotional paralysis. It’s nothing groundbreaking—we’ve seen versions of this story in almost every major superhero team-up flick so far. But it’s delivered here with such straightforwardly heartfelt conviction, it’s almost refreshing.
This is a movie where a hero makes an entrance by declaring, “I believe in truth, but I’m also a big fan of justice”—and no one makes fun of him. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, makes her entrance perched on the sword arm of a golden Lady Justice statue, an image played completely straight-faced. The Flash’s wide-eyed jabbering provides comic relief, but also frequently gives way to desperate attempts at connection. Even royal beefcake Aquaman cops to his own deep-seated insecurities. It’s all big swings, obvious imagery, and corny dialogue, offered so sincerely that it starts to make sense. There’s something admirable (or maybe foolhardy) about centering earnestness in one of these films—even if the end result is no Wonder Woman.
Still, nothing saves the film from its two most cumbersome requirements: reviving Superman and figuring out what the hell to do with Steppenwolf. The underwhelming horned villain is by far the worst in any DC movie so far. Less threatening than Wonder Woman’s laughably prim God of War, more ineffectual than Suicide Squad’s Joker. By the third act’s obligatory CGI mash-’em-up, I’d actually conjured fond feelings for Jesse Eisenberg’s insufferable Lex Luthor. One-and-done supervillains are generally considered letdowns; here, Steppenwolf’s anticlimactic demise is a mercy.
Likewise, Batman v Superman’s ludicrous decision to adapt The Death of Superman backs Justice League into a corner. (Both films were helmed by Snyder—with a last-minute assist on Justice League from Avengers director Joss Whedon, due to a family tragedy—suggesting the road map leading from one to the other was simply never fully thought through.) Superman’s casket had barely touched the ground in BvS (only his second film!) before his resurrection was suddenly guaranteed. That doesn’t leave Justice League much suspense to work with. The best it can do is summon (very, very pale) shades of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s thoughtfulness about the experience of death. Then it sort of just throws up its hands, say you get the idea, and smashes the reset button again. It’s a cop-out. But for the sake of jettisoning an ill-conceived, dead-end storyline from the future of these films, it’s as worthy as a cop-out gets. Fine.
Somehow, Justice League also fumbles one of its greatest gifts: the Amazons of Themyscira, who face off early against Steppenwolf. Too early. Before we even fully understand what a Mother Box is or why so many would sacrifice themselves to keep the one they have out of his hands. Flimsy CGI renders their acrobatics rubbery and strange. But some good news: controversy over the Amazons’ “skimpier” costumes turns out to be overblown; only one set of abs is glimpsed for more than a split second, and it’s in a feat of stunning strength. Other parts of the movie veer dangerously close to boxing Diana into the only role more tiresome for lone heroines in groups of men than “love interest”: the nanny. (“I work with children,” Diana says, smiling and shaking her head. It calls to mind a line Whedon saddled the Avengers’ Black Widow with: “I’m always cleaning up after you boys.”)
Saying that Justice League is a positive step for the DCEU might be a stretch, but it is a form of atonement. Now that the big blue Boy Scout is back, Steppenwolf is toast, and our heroes see the value in helping others, this universe stands a chance. The path forward is clear: focus on standalone origin stories before team-ups. Stop bloating movies with eight wildly distinct plotlines. Allow humor and color. And let the world’s finest shine.