Justice League: So much potential, so little payoff
Despite a stellar cast, this ungainly juggernaut misses the mark
At 117 minutes, Justice League — the DC Comics juggernaut featuring several of its biggest superheroes — has the pacing of a film twice its length. Despite a strong cast including Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Jeremy Irons, and the winsome Ezra Miller, the movie sags under the weight of its digital architecture and plot machinery. Each act has so many steps, it's more instruction manual than a story; the first act manages to convert both the gathering of the heroes and the villain's quest into bizarrely bureaucratic scavenger hunts. Despite some frenzied shorthand and the occasional fight, they illuminate little about the relevant characters' backgrounds or the movie's stakes — yes, the world is in danger and must be saved, but that's basically all you need (or get) to know. There's recruitment, torture, persuasion, but the main effect is the gear-grinding effort it takes to get all our figures lined up for the inevitable battle.
That this setup feels both rushed and tedious is a shame, because these figures have potential to be genuinely interesting. Ray Fisher brings depressive depth to Cyborg — more machine than human thanks to an accident, he's struggling to keep pace with his own learning and hang onto his humanity. You should know that Justice League's villain is a CGI creation named Steppenwolf, and while I couldn't spoil his project if I wanted to — it involves "mother-cubes" and anthropomorphic fear-fed zombie flies and purple vines that grow violently — what is clear once you watch the film is that Cyborg's peculiar constitution could have been deployed in pretty transformative ways. As it stands, he's basically a glorified coder and — for reasons that never come into focus — a chauffeur. Ezra Miller offers a lot of comic relief as The Flash, the team's adolescent enthusiast, and Momoa does well as a beefy bad Aquaman who wants you to think he's a lot tougher than he is. (One of the film's best moments deconstructs that identity.)
Then there's Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot continues her star turn as the Amazon goddess, and while she's actually given quite an interesting arc opposite Batman, a few things seem off. For one, her wardrobe (like the Amazons') is needlessly revealing. For another, this Wonder Woman's focus is almost comically narrow: When she's not saving the world, she hyper-specializes in museum-based crime. Jeremy Irons is basically fine but wasted as Alfred. As for Ben Affleck, his performance is wooden and kind of unappealing, but fittingly so: This Batman is tired.
Part of the fun of mixing superheroes like this is figuring out compatibilities and conflicts: How does an old god with archaic technology (like Wonder Woman's lasso or Aquaman's trident) stack up against new machine-based weapons like Cyborg's suit or Batman's arsenal? How can Flash's speed be put to good use? The pleasure of that mixed-media approach — in a movie like Justice League, which is explicitly about turning vigilantes into a team — is watching the members learn to complement each other and become a whole greater than the sum of its superheroic parts.
Or so you'd think.
While it gets off to a good and entertaining start on this score (there is some fun, pretty epic teamwork), the extent to which Justice League ends up opting out of this mode is kind of amazing. I won't go into details to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that, against all odds, the superhero team movie morphs until it's not just individualistic but downright messianic.
But the biggest kick of a movie like this — it's one of the most expensive films ever made — should be the action. On this front, too, I'm sorry to say that Justice League disappoints. There are a few terrific moments that combine humor and tension and style, but the vast majority of the fight scenes are CGI-ed well past the point of tension or interest. Many walls crumble from the force of superheroes getting people hurled into them, but the fight scenes are otherwise visually tough to follow and dramatically so unfocused that it's hard to know what to make of them.
For example: Batman produces a vehicle at one point that looks powerful and intimidating, but since it's never been introduced, we don't know what it does (or why he chooses that moment to deploy it). When Cyborg leaps into the driver's seat at a crucial moment, it seems like Cyborg's abilities will somehow magnify its effectiveness. Not so; he just manages to keep it going. And when the thing breaks down — for reasons that aren't made clear, at a moment that seems to mark the end for our heroes — the scene just peters out. The next shot has the gang safely back in Bruce Wayne's lair, discussing strategy with Alfred. What was this sequence for? What was it doing?
That the cast keeps this ungainly juggernaut going with little but presence and charisma is a testament to just how good they are. There are some great ingredients here — both in the characters and in the actors playing them — and for plenty of audiences that might be enough. Me, I'm hoping Flash, Cyborg, and the rest will get projects that are a little more worthy of their talents.