It’s been a long, arduous road for the current slate of DC Comics films. In the wake of the Nolan Batman trilogy, there was a bit of a vacuum, with studios not quite sure what to do with the universe. They bombed terribly with Green Lantern, and then had a middling success with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a film that did a decent enough job of telling Superman’s origin, even if it did so in a horribly bombastic, overwrought mess of a film filled with melodrama and a preposterous amount of collateral damage. Things took a turn for the much worse with last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film whose content was even more onerous than its title. It was long, loud, stupid, and did a shocking amount of disservice to its characters, with the exception of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Gadot rode that popularity into Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, easily the best film in the new DC cinematic universe, and it was there that we saw something wholly different — a bright, beautiful superhero film where the hero was actually heroic, instead of rife with brooding and grimness.
Snyder (with a minor assist from Joss Whedon, who finished things up after Snyder had to exit due to some tragic family issues) came back with Justice League, which somewhat abruptly brings together the main characters of one of DC’s longest-running teams. Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Flash (Ezra Miller) are quickly gathered together by Wonder Woman and Batman (Ben Affleck) to face a rapidly approaching threat in the form of an ancient alien called Steppenwolf, who has been imprisoned for millennia and essentially escaped because of all the human suffering resulting from the death of Superman. Or something. Anyway, getting the team together is a bit of a rocky road, but eventually they band together, hatch a dangerous plan to revive Superman, and take on Steppenwolf and his army of flying bug-like Skeletor wannabes (excuse me, parademons) before he can gather three magical boxes together and turn earth into a nightmarish hellscape similar to the world he came from.
It’s a lot of stuff crammed into a 120 minute runtime, and it is replete with storytelling stumbles. Justice League’s plot is a swamp, mired in holes, convenient coincidences, and head-scratching inconsistencies. There are any number of “wait, but why… ” moments and it can only be due to a rushed, uneven script. In a pleasant change of pace, it’s not as hyperactively edited as some of Snyder’s past works, and it’s not filmed exclusively at night, and as a result the film has a much brighter and more varied palette than its predecessors. Clearly, some lessons were learned from Wonder Woman.
However, things are not helped by a generic, rote villain. Steppenwolf, a 12-foot tall CGI creation who wears armor that makes him look like a Necromonger castoff from Chronicles of Riddick and wields a giant hammer, fails to connect on any level. Despite being voiced by the wonderful Ciarán Hinds, he’s an uninteresting villain who seems less his own creature and more a composite of a half-dozen villains past. He escapes from a magical prison determined to create a machine that will turn the Earth into a world like his own. Like, you know, Zod in Man of Steel. At least Zod had a semi-charismatic henchwoman in Antje Traue’s devilish Faora. Steppenwolf just has a faceless CGI army of parademons, a mindless swarm and while it’s fun to watch the Justice League bust them to pieces, they themselves aren’t particularly engaging villains. Steppenwolf himself brings to mind MCU’s most pointless villain, Malakith, from its most pointless film, Thor: The Dark World — a generic, boring enemy simply there to keep the plot moving, but who is unlikely to be particularly memorable.
Here’s the thing. Despite all of that? I enjoyed the hell out of Justice League. I genuinely did. It’s the rare film where its actors and their characters overcome the story’s weakness, where their chemistry is strong enough that just being able to watch them at play together is sufficient to make the experience worthwhile. Zack Snyder and company took a long, dark, shitty road to get here, determined to drive his protagonists into the ground and then build them back up in slapdash, roughshod fashion. And while the methods are questionable at best, for the first time, the heroes feel like heroes. They’re smart and fun and work well together, even when disagreeing over ideas and ideals. Gal Gadot is as great here as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman as she was in her solo film, and Justice League does a short, but effective examination of why we haven’t heard of her in the decades since then. Momoa is hilariously weird as a brawny, wild-eyed surfbro version of Arthur Curry; Ray Fisher is strong as the stoic Cyborg who doesn’t understand all of the strangeness surrounding his new existence; and Ezra Miller is utterly delightful as the anxious, socially inept Barry Allen/Flash. Lastly, it’s worth noting that Ben Affleck is a perfectly serviceable — and sometimes damn good — Batman/Bruce Wayne. Once the ceaseless brooding is removed, he’s actually pretty fun to watch. I suspect that it’s difficult to reconcile Affleck the actor from Affleck’s real-life persona, which has justifiably taken a beating in recent months, but for whatever it’s worth, he does solid work here (and for what it’s worth, I think the idea that the film is heading to a Bruce-Diana romance is overblown).
Ultimately, they just seem to gel nicely together. Each character gets their own mini-arc, and each one is mostly satisfying. Perhaps most importantly, when Superman is eventually resurrected, he seems like the Superman we’ve always wanted — powerful, intelligent, kind and thoughtful. He even laughs, for god’s sake. That in and of itself may be the saving grace of Justice League — it has a sense of humor that was so painfully absent from Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice. There’s a sense of playfulness and joy and hope that finally makes them seem less like avatars of moroseness and more like actual heroes — they save the world for all the right reasons, and they actually seem to like each other while they’re doing it. I just wish they were doing it in a better movie.
Is Justice League a good movie? Not exactly. From a purely narrative standpoint, it ranges from acceptable to disastrous, which is a hell of a range for a two hour film. Its pacing works far better than Dawn of Justice, though — it’s brisk and dives right into its story without endless monologues and only a handful of exposition dumps. But the story is a quagmire of cliche and plot holes, with a dull, derivative villain that hardly helps. And yet, there’s great promise — finally — with those characters that I found myself having a damn good time with in spite of the film’s numerous shortcomings. I don’t know that Justice League is the film we deserve, but after all of the previous missteps, maybe it’s the one we need right now. Maybe it’s the best we can get from Snyder and company. Maybe it’s a sign of better things to come. One can only hope.